Why campaigners are "extremely concerned" by these deaths of people under probation supervision in West Yorkshire

The number of people dying while under probation supervision in West Yorkshire has more than doubled in three years, a new analysis shows.

Tuesday, 16th April 2019, 4:12 pm
Updated Tuesday, 16th April 2019, 5:19 pm
There were 38 deaths of people under probation supervision in West Yorkshire in 2017/18. Picture: Graham Bedingfield

Official figures from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) reveal that there were 38 such deaths in 2017/18 compared to 16 in 2015/16.

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Campaigners say it is evidence of “institutional indifference” towards offenders following their release from custody.

But the Ministry of Justice insisted a “great deal of caution" was needed when trying to draw conclusions from the data.

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The rise in deaths under probation supervision in West Yorkshire is much starker than the national picture, with a 138 per cent increase compared to a 28 per cent across England and Wales.

It means West Yorkshire Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC) - the organisation responsible for supervising people on probation - recorded the fifth highest jump in deaths of any of the 28 National Probation Service divisions and CRCs monitored.

Only five of those organisations has seen the number of deaths decreasing since 2015/16, the first year after a Government restructuring of the Probation Service took effect.

Frances Cook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "It is extremely concerning to see such a sudden rise in the number of people who have died while being supervised in the community.

“Further investigation is required, but it raises fears that the cycle of homelessness, cuts to local government and voluntary sector provision, and the spread of drugs, such as spice, are having a devastating impact.

“Most significantly, it highlights the continued failure of private probation companies to keep people safe.”

The MoJ statistics focus on deaths that happened while an offender was under probation supervision, either serving court order sentences in the community or on supervision after leaving prison.

They show the equivalent of one in every 182 offenders died while under probation supervision in West Yorkshire in 2017/18 compared to one in every 425 in 2015/16.

A spokesman for West Yorkshire CRC said: “Sadly, out of the 9,000 people under the supervision of West Yorkshire CRC at any given time, a small percentage of people do pass away while on probation.

“We review every instance of where a service user has lost their life during their period of supervision to see if any lessons can be learned to improve our practice. We are committed to protecting the public and delivering the best rehabilitative services that we can.”

The MoJ states that the role of an offender manager in the community is to assess, supervise and rehabilitate offenders, but their ability to manage their health and wellbeing is limited.

The result is that the level of accountability for deaths which happen during probation supervision is substantially different from deaths in custody.

Only deaths which take place while an offender is staying in 'approved premises' such as bail hostels are independently investigated by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.

A Prevention of Future Deaths report might also be produced when a coroner feels further action should be taken after an inquest.

Otherwise, a death while under probation supervision would simply be recorded internally by the relevant National Probation Service division or CRC and be used to inform annual reports published by the MoJ.

Inquest, a national charity providing expertise on state related deaths, says independent investigations and inquests can help to identify any failings, hold agencies to account and prevent further deaths.

Its head of policy, Rebecca Roberts, said: "The lack of formal investigation of deaths post-custody means the facts surrounding a death are unlikely to come to light. This also means coroners will not have sufficient information to fully scrutinise these deaths."

She said pointed to the role of the Independent Office for Police Conduct in investigating deaths after police custody and suggested the same levels of scrutiny should apply to deaths of people after they leave prison.

“There’s been complete institutional indifference towards the lives and deaths of people following release from custody and a total lack of visibility and investigation," she said.“Transforming Rehabilitation reforms to probation services have been a disaster and many people are just abandoned after release. Deaths have been rising year after year, and we need more scrutiny on why this is and what can be done to prevent these deaths in future.”

The MoJ said it was important to note the difficulties in obtaining conclusive information about an offender’s cause of death.

Whilst the primary role of probation is to protect the public and prevent reoffending, it does not have sole responsibility for caring for offenders.

“Our probation reforms were a positive change for public safety, extending supervision and support to approximately 40,000 extra offenders each year – nearly 20 per cent more than in 2014,” a spokesman said.

“This significant increase in volume, along with the rising age of offenders and improved recording practices, means a great deal of caution is needed when trying to draw conclusions from this data."

The spokesman said an extra £22m was being invested in ‘through-the-gate’ assistance for offenders which is designed to help them find the support they might need on issues such as housing, healthcare and employment, and to ensure they have the same access to these services as any other person.